The following interview was done by Viktoriia Stepanets, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees.
“We are different from non-internally displaced persons (IDPs) by not making plans for tomorrow.” – Natalia, an internally displaced person from Sverdlovsk, and the director of the Department of Protection of IDPs’ rights in Kharkiv
The tragedy of Ukraine today is a widespread topic for discussion abroad. There are different interpretations of what is really going on in Ukraine. Each country adheres to the position on this issue which is favorable for it, or to be exact – for its government. The manipulation of consciousness has reached such an extent that even people who live in the territory of military actions (Donetsk and Lugansk regions) cannot give a clear and confident explanation of what is happening in the eastern part of Ukraine. Even they have a lot of questions about it.
The war in Ukraine is manifested in all forms: information, civil, international. In addition to the deaths, loss of houses, injuries, and the breaking of family ties, the war has necessitated a change of places of residence for a huge number of people whom we call refugees, migrants and displaced persons (depending on the area of their resettlement and the presence or absence of the certificate that determines their status). Today the problem of refugees is acute in many countries. Thanks to this interview with Natalia, an internally displaced person from Sverdlovsk city which is situated in Lugansk region and the director of the Department of Protection of IDPs’ rights in Kharkiv, I was better able to get to know the way IDPs live in my country, what are the benefits of this status, what major difficulties do they face, and what is the attitude toward them from local people.
Viktoriia Stepanets: Natalia, what are the advantages of having the status of “internally displaced person”?
Natalia: I have not felt them for myself. I decided to move to Kharkiv after I witnessed a bus with Chechen armed forces in my native city of Sverdlovsk city. (The first time Chechen armed forces were mentioned in the Sverdlovsk city was in 2014 when they took part in the hostilities.) It was the last straw. I went to Kharkiv in June 2014, where my son studied. I wanted to be near to him. I had no need for the status of an internally displaced person until I had decided to start my own business in 2015. For this reason, I needed this certificate. Also this status allows one to register in the Employment Centre and to get monthly financial assistance of $15. But when you pay 200 euro for the rent apartment, this sum does not make life easier.
How long is the status of IDP given for?
Previously, the status of IDP was given for six months; now it is termless.
Does the government provide a place to live for internally displaced persons?
There are three special camps: two of them are in Kharkiv, and the third one is in the neighbouring Kharkiv region. But I did not consider the option to reside there. I have never been there. I was told that everything needed is available there, but the atmosphere is depressing. You feel like a social outcast. My goal is to catch on in one of the largest cities of Ukraine, in the first Ukrainian capital, to develop my business, to give a future to my child, to get on my feet, as far it is possible in the current economic and political conditions of our country. Once I have reached Kharkiv, I was looking for a room to rent; I had not even thought about the camp. Within two years I have changed my apartment more than three times. At first I was evicted because of differences in political views with the owner of the apartment; then I moved out by myself due to rising rents (as the hostess said, “As IDPs come here in large numbers, rent sum will be increased twice”). For a while I was living at the filling station where I worked as a cleaner. The most significant issue that IDPs face today is accommodations. And our organisation does its best to solve this problem at least partially.
How long has your organisation existed and what goals does it set for itself primarily?
The Department of Protection and Assistance to IDPs (via the international public organisation, “European Police Association” or EUROPOL) was established in May of this year. Our organisation is financed by membership fees. The government does not support us. We are the only organisation in Kharkiv which consists entirely of internally displaced persons. We work in three directions: IDPs’ business development, their accommodations, and the restoration of constitutional law. We run a special campaign, “I have the right to choose”, which has the aim to amend legislation, namely to change “to vote according to the registration” to “to vote according to the place of actual residence”. The idea of this action came to us after we had faced an official refusal of our request to the administration of the areas in which we are registered to be included to the voters list. We have also created a business incubator which is intended to bring all businesses together, to accumulate money for further development of the organisation.
Did you think about moving abroad and obtaining refugee status there?
No. I have never had such plans. I always wanted to live in my own country. Ukraine has enough problems right now, and I want to help in the development of its present and future.
What were your expectations from moving to Kharkiv and obtaining IDP status? Are they fulfilled?
I expected a great deal in June 2014. I hoped that Ukrainian troops would come and the chaos would end. When nothing was over but only aggravated, I stopped waiting for anything, pulled myself together and realised that my tomorrow depends on me — that my problems should be solved by myself. And the state will not help. When I moved to Kharkiv, I did not have any expectations.
What, in your opinion, should the Ukrainian government do to improve the situation of IDPs in our country?
The main problem which has to be emphasised is that we need to settle somewhere permanently. To live in a camp for several years is unreal. There are a lot of abandoned and deserted buildings in Kharkiv. In my opinion, it is a rational choice in current circumstances to give them to IDPs. In our turn, we will be able to address the issue of their reconstruction (by applying for grants or by our own efforts). We will cease to exist as a problem, and we will begin to pay taxes to Kharkiv. Taking into account the current economy and political situation in Ukraine, I suppose it is impossible to compensate the housing we had lost in the war zone. There is a discussion now in Kiev about the issue of preferential housing loans, under which the cost of apartments is repaid by an IDP, while a percentage of the loan is paid by the donor. The state should and can take part in this matter. We agree to consider a variety of ways to address this issue. We do not ask for free housing because we are perfectly aware that it would lead to a wave of indignation from the side of local residents.
What is the relationship from Kharkiv people to IDPs?
Ambiguous. It was hard to get a job and rent a house. “We do not rent the apartment for convicted persons, with dogs, and from Lugansk” is written in the ads. The rent is increased twice (which I also faced personally). Despite the level of my education and work experience, I have not been taken even as a dishwasher. The reasons for refusing were: “We cannot trust you,” or “You will not stay here for a long time. You will work and leave again and we need the employees for the long term.” There are those who are sympathetic, and intelligent people do not distinguish; they treat locals and IDPs equally, looking at the person, not at what is written in the passport.
Do IDPs prefer to stay in Kharkiv or plan to return home?
Based on my experience, elderly people tend to return. In our organisation, everybody prefers to stay, regardless of future Ukrainian development. Perhaps someone will change the decision if the legislation system improves in our native region. Now there is a complete mess with it.
How do you see the future of internally displaced persons in Ukraine?
I see that that a diaspora is being created. IDPs cooperate with IDPs. And hardly ever will we be able to stay in one line with Kharkiv people. We are different from non-IDPs by not making plans for tomorrow. We do not try to predict, to plan, to hoard. We live “today”. Somehow. But still we live.
Viktoriia Stepanets is a journalist born in Kiev, Ukraine. She studied multimedia journalism in the High School of Economy in Moscow, Russia. Viktoriia took part in various projects related to peacebuilding, including LofC Caux and Peace Tour around Ukraine. Now she works as a journalist in the cultural sphere and participates in the Young Peace Journalists project trying to learn more about the situation of internally displaced persons in her country and refugees in the larger world.